Christmas is much more than a one-day event.
While many people are familiar with the multi-week length of liturgical seasons throughout the Christian calendar -- Ordinary Time, Advent and Lent, for example -- few realize that Christmas is not just the celebration of the Nativity on Dec. 25 each year. Christmas is a full liturgical season that spans from Christmas Eve through Epiphany and ends, at least in the Roman Catholic Church, on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 13 this year).
During the Christmas Season (sometimes called "Christmastide") several other important feast days are celebrated, including the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), the Feast of the Holy Family (Dec. 30 this year), the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord (Jan. 6 this year), and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In some churches, the celebration of the Christmas season can extend to as late as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2, which brings the season to a full 40 days! Each of these moments marks an important event in the Christian narrative and in the life of the church.
It is interesting that our consumer culture has seen an opportunity to extend Christmas with an exceptionally early start to the marketing of Christmas-related products, decorations, candy and music. However, this move -- "beginning Christmas" as early as October -- is both redundant and a reversal of the proper season. Christmas is already long enough, but it requires that we celebrate the patient yet attentive waiting of the Advent Season first.
For those who think Christmas is anticlimactic after the months of shopping, prepping and holiday anxiety, the real good news of Christmas extends beyond the birth of the Savior to include an appropriately joyful and reflective season dedicated to pondering these mysteries.
On Dec. 21, 1962 the renowned German theologian Karl Rahner wrote a guest editorial in the weekly paper, Die Zeit, in which he offered some reflections on the celebration of Christmas and the season that bears its name. After observing that Christmas can oftentimes feel like a disappointment after such cultural buildup, Rahner wrote:
Yet the mystery still permeates our existence and repeatedly forces us to look at it: in the joy that is no longer aware of its cause; in fear, which dissolves our ability to comprehend our existence; in the love that knows itself as unconditional and everlasting; in the question that frightens us with its unconditional nature and boundless vastness.
The seemingly superficial and conventional Christmas hoopla is blessed in the end with truth and depth. What looks like a sham in light of all the holiday activity, then, is not the complete truth, for in the background stands the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.
As Dec. 25 comes and goes, and the temptation to begin taking down the Christmas decorations quickly arises, consider the possibility of taking this year's celebration of Christmas as an opportunity for something different.
Whereas in Christmases of the past, the day came and went amid gift giving, caroling and holiday parties, each rushed to be included before December's end, perhaps this year might be the occasion to slow down and ponder more quietly that which stands in the background of this otherwise hectic time of year; what Rahner calls "the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us."
This year, especially in light of our all-too-painful awareness of violence and suffering in our world, time set aside to welcome the Prince of Peace is greatly needed.
May the remaining days of Christmas be a time of peace, prayer and joy, that what began on Christmas Eve may carry you through into a new calendar year more aware of the continued presence of the one who is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Merry Christmas ... still!